Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Full Stature of Women as Servants of Christ in His Church - Part 3


Two key elements required to understand the equal status of women with men are often missed by those who interpret the Bible to exclude women from ministry and church leadership. They are:
1. The nature of authority in the church, and
2. The nature of headship.
We will deal with the nature of authority today and the nature of headship tomorrow.

The nature of authority in the church

The first mistake many of us make is to assume that leadership positions in the church are positions that hold authority by virtue of their office. The truth is that leadership and authority are always earned. Spiritual authority is something that comes as one's leadership abilities, wisdom, and character come to be recognized by others.

As for authoritarian leadership, Jesus rejected that outright. Recall:
Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant...." (Mt 20:25-26, emphasis added).
The Greek word used for authority here is a form of exousia. W.E. Vine calls it "the right to exercise power," "the power of rule or government," and "the power of one whose will must be obeyed." As it appears in this text, it means to use such power over others. Gentiles may practice leadership in that way, but, Jesus says, "Not so with you." The kind of leadership Jesus endorsed depends not on titles but on the power of one's godly, servantlike example. In fact, Jesus urged his followers not to take on high-sounding titles (Mt 23:6-12).

When following the direction or position espoused by a leader, Bible-believing Christians will always ask whether or not a position or proposal has the authority of Scripture behind it. We Protestants reject the idea of apostolic succession because we understand that the only apostolic authority for today exists in the apostolic teachings canonized in Scripture. Consequently, we also reject the idea that any individual or office today holds inherent divine authority (apostolic or otherwise). If a pastor or teacher cannot demonstrate a position from Scripture, their title or position will not persuade us!

When we recognize how authority is supposed to function biblically, we realize that many women already wield tremendous influence in churches that would never acknowledge them as formal leaders or officers. Because of their godliness and their grasp of the Scriptures these women are respected and listened to, even if in an "unofficial" way (e.g., through their husbands). One problem with this arrangement, though, just to be practical, is that it allows for a kind of hidden leadership to operate in a church. This is dangerous, since it can undermine the efforts of the recognized leadership and does not include them where their gifts and abilities are most useful and needed. Ungifted people can therefore end up with titles and responsibilities while the true leaders (gifted by the Holy Spirit to lead) are excluded. Practically speaking, it's simply more effective to allow those who truly are leaders to work together freely, openly, and with accountability. To do less fails to give God our best.

What's more, if we were to ask which of the two sexes historically has been most identified with the kind of meek and humble servanthood that Jesus taught, the record of female Christians would win hands down! If the greatest among us is the most servantlike, why then do we hesitate to recognize the greatness and leadership of women?

In your opinion...
Who has more authority?
A stranger who takes their stand
rightly on a biblical text,
or a pastor who misquotes the Bible?

Therefore, when someone denies women ordination, leadership roles, or the freedom to teach men on the grounds that this would grant them authority, they act from a false assumption about authority. In the Church of Jesus Christ no one is to exercise authority over another person. Only the Word of God has supreme authority. Therefore, no such authority exists in connection with any person's office, position or role! Jesus denied it even to the apostles. Yet, when it comes to the kind of spiritual authority that does exist (the kind founded in character, biblical knowledge, wisdom, and servanthood), this kind of authority is already being exerted by women, regardless of their titles and positions. This ability to influence others needs to be harnessed properly so it can be used freely, effectively and in a context that allows for the most accountability. Otherwise it can become dangerous and subversive.

What is Ordination?

If we accept the New Testament instances of appointing leaders to examples of ordination, then we see that ordination really is just a way of acknowledging God's calling in an individual's life. It is a time to ask God for the anointing needed to assist called individuals in the task God has for them, and to set them apart for the work of ministry. But the idea that ordination bestows on a person authority or calling or power that isn't already there by virtue of God's choice is foreign to the New Testament. Ordination has more to do with officially recognizing God's calling on a person than it has to do with imparting authority. This is one reason we heirs of the Radical Reformation tend to reject clericalism and hierarchical church structures in general. And in most anabaptist churches, for example, a pastor gets just one vote like every other member, and usually shares any administrative authority with a board or a church chairperson.

On the most pragmatic level, anyone struggling with the question of ordaining women should ask themselves what in actual practice ordination accomplishes. Does it really bestow authority on a person? What authority can it be if Jesus did not authorize it for anyone, men included! And if, as we will see, Paul could recognize women of his day as apostles, elders, deacons, prophets, and teachers, who are we to deny God's calling on his women servants today?

Coming Up: Tomorrow we'll look at the nature of headship.


  1. This is a pretty good post. To be sure, I like the formate and your writing style. Wish I was as gifted. :)

    In any case, I don't think you've shown (convincingly in my mind) that Jesus denied authority to anyone. I think what you've shown, rather, is that Jesus denied worldly authority. As you say, there is a "... kind of spiritual authority that does exist (the kind founded in character, biblical knowledge, wisdom, and servanthood)". Precisely right! I'm with you on that point and on the point of women apostles, prophetess, deaconess et. cetera. Yet I'm a complimentarian! :) As Wright says, "it's a good word".

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Derek! Great input, as always!

    My position is that the kind of authority Jesus GAVE his apostles had to do with preaching his message and exercising authority over demons, diseases, etc. Nowhere does he give anyone "authority over" another PERSON. In fact, this passage clearly denies it. The Gentiles exercise "authority over" each other (Greek exousia), but "NOT SO WITH YOU." I don't see how it could be clearer.

    What does get admittedly tricky here is that the discussion of authority hinges on a multiplicity of Greek words that all have the same English rendering (authority) but which have differing nuances in the original text. For example, the often-cited text of Paul saying he suffers not a woman to have authority over a man uses the Greek word "authentein," which is hotly debated as to its meaning. What makes it even more troubling is that it only occurs once in the entire Bible (a hapax).

    So when we drop back and look at other words that mean authority, the one that comes closest to how hierarchalists want to understand "authentein" is "exousia," which actually does mean "authority over." This is the word that occurs in the Matthew passage cited above, and which is denied even to the apostles. What's interesting to me is that this word is never used again of a Christian in relation to another Christian EXCEPT in 1 Corinthians 7:4-5, where it is clearly presented as a mutual thing within marriage. Beyond that, no individual Christian is said to have "exousia" over another.

    So what is the authority given to the apostles and to church leaders? It pertains to matters of faith and practice only. Those who remain within the boundaries of what Scripture actually teaches have authority to teach correct doctrine and to hold others accountable in matters of faith and practice. Their position does not, however, give them authority to contradict biblical teaching or to settle matters not addressed by Scripture. Thus they are not authorized by Christ to decide things like whether or not a parishioner should go on vacation, take a job, sell their house, marry the believer in the next pew, etc.--unless an aspect of one of these decisions has some kind of clear conflict with a biblical teaching, as in a moral issue or matter of doctrine.

    Now, of course, someone who leads well and has established their character as having wisdom and reverance may be empowered or authorized BY THE CONGREGATION to make decisions affecting pragmatic matters not addressed in Scripture--like the order of service, the hymn selection, how many days a week to have secretarial help, etc. But this kind of authority is not intrinsic to the leadership positions named in Scripture but is rather derived from the faith community, not from the Lord himself.


  3. (part 2)

    As for the word "complementarian," it is indeed a good word. It is unfortunate, however, that it has become a euphemism for people who have seized upon one of its lesser definitions--and the one that is most vague. I am speaking, of course, of those who are in reality hierarchalists and patriarchalists. They know nothing of complementarity and seek to silence the better part of the Bride, while suppressed her gifts and muting the contribution women have made in history. Those who laugh at this allegation by dismissing it as "conspiracy theory" are blind to the oppressive policies and practices of patriarchalists taking place all around us.

    The fact that some, like you, are far less extreme and have happy marriages does not change the potential damage that can be, and has been, committed as a result of this fundamental flaw in how they misunderstand authority. My guess is that your marriage is far more egalitarian than hierarchal/patriarchal. (And by the way, most of my egalitarian friends have taken to calling themselves mutualists, instead, for clarity sake.) If your wife truly is your friend, then I doubt the issue of authority comes up with any regularity or serious concern. My guess is that you would not treat her any differently than you would your best friend. The nature of such friendship is usually built upon mutuality, not authority. And so I am very happy for you in this.

    Be that as it may, I know that volumes have been written on this topic by far more learned scholars than I will ever be. Thank you for the cordial manner in which you've offered your views and the gracious spirit you have in matters where we differ. I admire that. And once again, look up to you for modeling it for me. Peace.

  4. Dave, you might not like this, but my wife is probably more complimentarian than I. She sees me as a "spiritual head" (a term and concept I know you don't like). The "authority" that is exercised in our home is one of servant leadership, a laying down of ones life as Christ did, in which I never (EVER) make unilateral decisions, I see her (your right) as my absolute best friend. The term your friends use, mutual, genuinely describe our relationship. Yet there is a strong sense in which I lead and she follows. I can imagine it must be terribly difficult for an egalitarian to read those words without reading into those words a whole bunch of ideas I don't mean by them. And it is so terribly difficult to describe. I've failed here, no doubt, in provide that description with accuracy. If that makes me a "hierarchalists and patriarchists" blind to the oppression that must be going on in my very home in your eyes, than I related with your comment elsewhere that "with all your cordiality, such generalizations are still patently offensive."